Preparing Children to Be Entrepreneurs

The US Small Business Administration (SBA) recently conducted focus groups to learn what entrepreneurs, investors and others believe we need to do to enhance entrepreneurship in America. One of their findings was that we need to improve entrepreneurship education in our K-12 schools.

child entrepreneurs

While it’s hard to argue with “improving education” for anything, this recommendation appears misplaced. More representative surveys show that Americans believe their schools are doing a good job of preparing kids to be entrepreneurs, at least in comparison to what people from many other industrialized countries think.

According to a 2009 Gallup Organization survey of 26,000 people in 36 nations, two thirds of Americans believe that their elementary and secondary schools are providing the requisite skill and knowledge to run a business. These numbers compare favorably to the responses of Europeans, only 39 percent of whom agree.

What are American schools doing right when it comes to entrepreneurship education? The data point to three things:

  • First, American schools are doing a good job of teaching kids what entrepreneurs do. Seventy-one percent of the Americans surveyed said that elementary and secondary schools helped them to learn how entrepreneurs contribute to our economy and society. By contrast, only 44 percent of Europeans held this view.
  • Second, American schools are helping to develop an entrepreneurial attitude, or “sense of initiative.” Seventy-three percent of Americans said that their primary and secondary school education taught them a sense of initiative. But only 49 percent of Europeans agreed.
  • Third, American schools are peaking students’ interest in business ownership. Americans were twice as likely as Europeans to tell the surveyors that their K-12 education stimulated their interest in being in business for themselves (50 versus 25 percent).

While Americans are much more likely than Europeans to believe that primary and secondary schools are effective at training people to become entrepreneurs, there are two negatives in the data:

  • First, a report by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) revealed a significant drop in experts’ opinions of the state of U.S. K-12 entrepreneurship education between 2005 and 2008. If this trend continues, we will see a declining share of Americans reporting that their school education helped them to develop the necessary skills and attitudes to be business founders.
  • Second, while we perceive our schools to be much better at preparing kids for entrepreneurship than do the Europeans, they might not be who we should compare ourselves to.

China is becoming the world leader in entrepreneurship and the Gallup survey showed that Americans were no more likely than the Chinese to think that their schools are doing a good job training people to become entrepreneurs. Twenty-five years ago that would not have been the case.

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Scott Shane Scott Shane is A. Malachi Mixon III, Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at Case Western Reserve University. He is the author of nine books, including Fool's Gold: The Truth Behind Angel Investing in America ; Illusions of Entrepreneurship: and The Costly Myths that Entrepreneurs, Investors, and Policy Makers Live By.